Do extremists ever change the world for good? You could argue that being extremely passionate about something can be a good thing. For example, I’m a New York Yankees fan. Considering they’ve won 27 World Series titles, it’s understandable to be passionate. But if this passion goes to extremes, and I belittle or slander Mets fans, have I really done anything good for the baseball world? And have I really done the Yankees any favors?
Most of us would agree that an “us vs. them” mentality and using slanderous comments toward those who oppose you is a type of extremism that is slowing tearing us apart. Few would advocate for teaching this type of intellectual or verbal extremism in schools or churches. So if this type of extreme behavior is not valued or taught, then where does it come from?
Before we answer that question, let’s be clear on our definition. The Oxford Dictionary defines an extremist as “a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, especially one who resorts to or advocates extreme action.” We all know people who are on the spectrum of extreme, and we whisper: “Isn’t she a little over the top with those essential oils?” or “Wow, he’s really fixated on his lawn!”
We also see extremists in the news in a variety of categories. There are religious extremists who picket at funerals or detonate bombs for “god.” There are social extremists who move beyond peaceful protests to destructive rioting. And then there are political extremists who belittle and shout down anyone with a different perspective on laws and policies. Most of us see these examples of extremism and condemn “those” people. Yet those people are convinced they are doing good things for our world.
If our collective sense is that these forms of extremism are dangerous, then where is this born? Here are 5 ways extremism can grow in all of us.
1. Extremism never starts extreme.
Those who act extreme don’t envision becoming extreme, but instead grow over time into an unstoppable force, believing they are right and everyone else is wrong.
2. Extremism starts with an appetite to learn.
Someone hungry to grow and discover truth begins to consume lots of information to make sense of their world. This appetite to learn keeps them reading. Yet, over time, they only read things that confirm their narrative. They keep talking, but only with those who agree with their perspective.
3. Extremists are questioned and whispered about in private.
As their passion for learning starts to lean toward extremism, people start questioning them. “Wow, you are really spending a lot of time learning about…” or “I understand your perspective, but have you ever considered…” or “Why does every conversation have to lead to a debate about…” But the fledgling extremist doesn’t pick up on the cues. So the questions turn to whispers behind their back: “Wow, she just won’t shut up about…” or “he’s gone off the deep end!”
4. Extremists are isolated.
The questions and whispering leads people to move away from the emerging extremist. They were once passionate learners. Now they rant all the time about the same issues and miss the social cues that cause their isolation.
5. Extremists find other extremists.
Isolation from the mainstream feeds the extremists’ notion that they are right and everyone else is wrong. This leads them to lock arms with other extremists in clubs, religious groups, or online forums. Fomenting in their extremism, the individual or groups must resort to action to accomplish the “good” they believe the world needs.
While the growth of extremism is not surprising in the vast array of global concerns, it’s especially shocking to see this mindset taking shape among Christians and churches.
Some might argue: “Following Jesus requires us to be extreme. Christians need to stand up for and defend the truth at all costs!” They may even quote verses, typically pulled out of context, to defend their thinking and actions. Yet, when you look at the life of Jesus and the overarching teaching of the Bible, there is little room for the type of Christian extremism growing today.
I can be Biblically faithful and loyal to Jesus, but also lead a quiet and peaceful life. I can disagree with the direction of politicians, but not become bitter or slanderous. I can grieve the sinful direction of our culture, while loving God, my neighbor, and my enemy. I can even be greatly concerned by the behavior of other Christians and the teaching of other churches, yet not become divisive or proud. When the formula for extremism noted above enters the teaching of the church or the heart of a Christian, we are not being faithful followers. We’re being rebellious children.
If there was ever someone justified in being extreme, it was Jesus. Yet, our gracious and truthful Savior never went to extremes to achieve a cultural good. As a blue collar worker and family man, Jesus lived within the oppressive Roman Empire. As a faithful Jew, Jesus served within the fraudulent practices of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He lovingly engaged with violent criminals and corrupt politicians. He respectfully interacted with the morally broken and religiously hypocritical. He walked and talked with women and men, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, in a gracious, truthful, and gentle manner. Jesus never succumbed to extreme behaviors on politics, culture, or religion. And by living this way, Jesus accomplished a world of good.
There is only one exception for Jesus when it comes to extremes — a character trait He inherited from His Father. Jesus’ life was marked by extreme love. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son. Jesus willingly set aside the exercise of His divine attributes to become a suffering servant and give His life as a ransom for many. By loving this way, Jesus saved the world from sin, decay, and destruction.
So if there was ever a place for the Christ follower to be extreme, it’s in love. Yet love is clearly not the attribute driving the type of extreme Christian thinking or behavior we see today.
Christians who speak more about what they are against rather than what they are for are in danger of extremism.
Christians fixated on their systematic theology rather than the unity of the body of Christ are in danger of extremism.
Christians fixated on their political party or economic system as the only “Christian” option are in danger of extremism.
Christians fixated on Supreme Court decisions rather than loving their neighbor are in danger of extremism.
Christians fixated on being “anti-woke” rather than lovingly engaging the “woke” are in danger of extremism. Likewise, Christians who are “woke” and see everyone as prejudiced are also in danger of extremism.
Extremism like this doesn’t change people or bring about good in the church or world. Jesus modeled a different way. Through love and sacrifice, people change. And when people are changed by love, that’s when communities, cultures, and countries change.
If Christians are following Christ, then Christians are patient. Christians are kind. Christians do not envy. Christians do not boast. Christians are not proud. Christians are not rude. Christians are not self-seeking. Christians are not easily angered. Christians keep no record of wrongs. Christians do not delight in evil but rejoice with the truth. Christians always protect, always trust, always hope, always persevere. This type of loving Christian never fails.
So rather than being rebellious children attempting to change people through divisive thinking, frustrated rants, or belittling rhetoric, may we be faithful followers who advance a Kingdom of love. Let’s be known for out-serving, not out-smarting; for out-uniting, not out-dividing; for out-loving, not out-hating. And that can only lead to a world of good.